ORONO, Maine — The physical nature of football makes injuries an inevitable part of the game. The University of Maine has endured more than its share during the 2011 season.
Despite having to work around several injuries to key players both prior to and during the season, the 13th-ranked Black Bears (8-3) are headed to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for the first time since 2008.
UMaine feels fortunate to have earned a first-round bye and will have two weeks to rest, heal and prepare for its Dec. 3 game at No. 9 Appalachian State (8-3).
“To be honest, that’s the most important issue right now,” said head coach Jack Cosgrove.
In retrospect, Saturday’s 30-27 loss at New Hampshire came as UMaine utilized some players who did not perform up to par because of health issues.
“I watched the tape and there’s some guys that played … that shouldn’t have been playing,” Cosgrove said. “If you’re evaluating guys playing through being injured, it cost us a football game.”
Cosgrove would not elaborate, but among the players who did not play at a high level of efficiency and have experienced injury issues of late were quarterback Warren Smith and safety Trevor Coston.
Smith threw three interceptions and completed only 24 of 41 passes while Coston was beaten on two touchdown passes.
“It’s huge,” said Smith, who has been dealing with wrist and shoulder problems. “We’re banged up and we’re just happy to get this week of rest and get back to normal.”
The Black Bears came into the season without their leading returning tackler, senior linebacker Donte Dennis, because of elbow surgery. They also lost veteran defensive linemen Brent Rice and Spencer Wood for the season.
Senior tight end Jeff Falvey and junior defensive end Kris Enslen, both starters, were coming off knee surgery. Falvey returned in a limited role for the Massachusetts game while Enslen finally suited up Saturday at New Hampshire but did not play.
UMaine played the last nine regular-season games without starting senior slot receiver Derek Buttles and sophomore wide receiver Derrick Johnson, both of whom suffered season-ending knee injuries. Junior wideout Maurice McDonald was having a breakout season and was among the CAA leaders in receptions before injuring his right foot Nov. 5 against Towson.
He likely will not return to the lineup.
Then there’s a knee injury to redshirt freshman linebacker Arron Achey that has cost him several games and a nagging thigh injury to senior tailback Pushaun Brown. Junior defensive end Doug Alston has been limited because of a cast on his left hand, while backup tailback David Hood suffered a leg injury Saturday.
The Bears have been severely challenged.
UMaine senior defensive tackle Kevin Phanor said the importance of the bye week cannot be overestimated as far as the Bears’ collective health is concerned.
“I feel like the bye, at this point in the season, is very important only because there’s a lot of injuries, nicks and bruises, things that having a week off from playing a game actually helps repair,” he said.
“It’s extra time in the training room, extra time with our strength coaches, things that we need to get healthy and get better to play football,” Phanor added.
Cosgrove said having two weeks between games will enable UMaine to build off a successful approach it used earlier in the season.
The Bears had their regular-season bye after their three nonconference games. He believes they took full advantage of it.
“The stakes are high. You lose, you go home,” Cosgrove said of the playoffs. “For us to be successful, we needed an opportunity to do almost exactly what we did back in September.”
UMaine was banged up after the game at Pittsburgh, which followed a contest at Albany in which the Bears lost Buttles and Johnson to their injuries. Cosgrove and the staff were able to get players rested while gaining valuable practice repetitions for players who were moving into starting roles.
“Arguably, our best performances of the year followed that bye week with (wins over) Delaware and James Madison,” Cosgrove said. “That’s the conversation we’re going to have with our players to put that in their mind.”